From Adversity to Authority: How Healing Experiences Can Shape Leadership

Healing from a mental health issue or substance addiction is quite a feat. It takes real resilience and motivation to push through and find the other side. What you may not have considered, though, is that this journey can also make you a more competent, confident leader. The things you’ve accomplished in your own life can, in turn, inspire others to do better. Here are three ways healing experiences can build you into a stronger leader.

You’ve Done the Work

Healing from adversity can be a complex process with many ups, downs, false starts, and missteps. It’s hard to acknowledge what you’re going through and accept help in moving forward. Once you take action, it requires real dedication to follow through on healing.

Everyone’s journey is different, from a largely self-managed recovery process, to outpatient therapy, to mental health rehab. But however you approach your healing journey, it takes grit and commitment — qualities not just everyone has. The more you actively develop these muscles, the better you get at applying them in all facets of life.

All of the effort demanded by a difficult mental health journey translates directly to more effective leadership. When you’ve practiced working through any difficult process, you get better at overcoming challenges in the workplace or on projects. But when that process is healing your own mind, you gain more mental resilience than you might from other difficult experiences.

For example, let’s say Elva joins a recovery group to heal from substance abuse and depression. She has to show up every day, even when she’s feeling her worst, and do therapeutic exercises to get better. Her mental health is off balance, and she’s not in her regular environment. But she perseveres, even in the face of those disadvantages. 

After all that, what’s a little workplace conflict or a project setback? Suddenly, it’s so much easier for Elva to manage challenges in the office. She takes the skills she learned in her program, like resilience and mindfulness, and calmly moves forward. She’s used to adversity, and now she’s approaching it with experience and with all her mental faculties.

You’ve Developed More Empathy

Healing yourself involves cultivating a lot of empathy — for yourself and for others. You have to learn how to accept where you’ve made mistakes or where your mental health may have disappointed you. You’re taught to think more deeply about the perspectives of others and look at alternate explanations for behavior you don’t like.

As you work on yourself, you start to understand that few people feel like they’re getting it right. Everyone makes mistakes, and most people spend a lot of time worrying about how other people perceive them. No one walks through life simply believing they are always good enough and deserve all the things they have. (Well, no one who’s not a complete narcissist, anyhow.) Human beings all have their doubts, insecurities, quirks, and feelings of vulnerability.

Perhaps you’ve been dealing with intense anger and anxiety but you don’t really understand why. A healing journey can help you understand the root causes; for instance, a major life change that led you to feel unstable. Whatever the cause of the issues you’re currently experiencing, there’s usually a good reason. That reason is not that you are simply a wrong or broken human.

When you give yourself the grace of understanding that there’s a reason for your actions, it’s easier to give it to others. If you take that acceptance with you to the office — or to any project you’re leading — you can extend it to your teammates. It’s easier to see that Fazel in accounting didn’t mean to fudge the numbers, he was just feeling distracted or sad that day. You’re able to offer him empathy and kindness, instead of criticism and frustration. This type of empathetic leadership establishes a more positive work culture.

You Can Empower Others to Make Positive Change

All that empathy you show for your team members’ feelings and actions is really just the beginning. Once you start understanding how they function — and how much you have in common — you can also help them grow. Leaders who’ve been through a journey of adversity are especially good at inspiring and motivating others to do better.

A great example of this shows up in fields like physical therapy and personal training. For example, it’s easier to get your fitness training from someone who has had to work hard to lose fat or build muscle. That person usually has a much better understanding of how much mental strength it takes.

A trainer who’s always been fit was probably raised in a household where nutritious meals and snacks were regularly provided. In contrast, a trainer who has experienced obesity likely grew up in a very different household. Maybe their parents had to work more, so no one was around to prepare healthy meals with fresh ingredients. Or the family didn’t have the money to keep those foods around the house. 

The second trainer is better equipped to understand all the factors that have kept their clients from getting fit. They’re also able to stand out as an example of someone who faced down obstacles to get to where they are. That enables the client to see just how much hard work can pay off.

This same concept of motivating from a place of experience can also apply in the corporate world or on other projects. You can’t (or shouldn’t) necessarily tell your co-workers about your addiction recovery or depression journey. But you can model the types of healthy, learned behaviors that got you to a better place in life. The authenticity and dedication you’ve put into those behaviors will naturally shine through and be adopted by others.

Healing Isn’t Linear — Nor Is Business

People tend to think of healing experiences as something you “get through” and “finish,” and then you’re done. While this is true in some respects, it’s also important to remember that healing is never really complete. A leader who has undergone a healing journey recognizes that there will always be more hurdles ahead. That mindset enables them to both mentally prepare for future challenges and address them confidently when they arrive. And that’s an invaluable capability in business as well as life.